February 3, 2011

Rememboring the Berkeley Barb (and other underground newspapers)

Filed under: Guest Comment — Tags: , , — Bob Patterson @ 1:33 pm

Seeing a copy of Smoking Typewriters (by John McMillan Oxford University Press Copyright 2011) for sale over the weekend, inspired us to see if the Berkeley Public Library had that book available in its new releases section because we were curious about how far one would have to delve into it before encountering any reference to the Berkeley Barb. When we learned that the Library would be glad to take a suggestion that they acquire that particular work, we sped back to Moe’s Book Store on Telegraph Ave. and overcame the cheapskate aspect of our personality and bought a copy of the new book with the subtitle: “The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America.”

The Introduction compared and contrasted the coverage of the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont which had appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Berkeley Barb. The Barb was mentioned in the first sentence.

Since the Chronicle was the flagship of William R. Hearst’s newspaper empire and the Barb was one of the first “underground” newspapers, the corporate viewpoint was very different from the work in the publication driven by the drive towards profits than was the reportage found in the alternative news source.

The basic business philosophy of those two publications was as different as that of Fox News and this website. It’s as if it is just a matter of history to see that the official government endorsed view of reality is engineered to perpetually spawn a market for media which was designed to subvert the distortion of reality by the unscrupulous businessmen hoping to curry favor from the politicians.

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and their Port Huron Statement is credited with being the source of inspiration for the underground press movement. The Village Voice and Paul Krasner’s magazine, The Realist are acknowledged to be the prototypes from the Fifties for the underground newspaper movement of the Sixties. Passing mention is made of the role underground newspapers played during the German occupation of Paris (France, not Texas).

McMillan takes a close look at the stories about the start of the Los Angeles Free Press, and the Paper in the East Lancing Michigan area near Michigan State University (MSU), and the Rag in Austin Texas. The author itemizes numerous parallels and ties between the Paper and events in Berkeley CA.

In chapter three, McMillan looks at Berkeley’s association with a widespread belief in the late Sixties that smoking dried banana skins was just as important to enthusiasts of psychedelic experimentation as was the dreaded marijuana plant that spawned a nation wide panic over the concern that the youth of America were risking falling into the life of a drug fiend just for a few momentary feelings of elation called “highs” or “kicks.”

McMillan, in a book that is heavily annotated with scholarly references to provide a lifetime of work for at-home fact checkers, cavalierly quotes numerous efforts by the underground press to substantiate and validate the urban legend that the peels of the tropical fruit could, if dried and smokes like tobacco, produce a transitory feeling of bliss known as “Mellow Yellow.” In every case, the road test was declared to substantiate the claim, but then McMillan notes that the FDA declared the belief to be a “hoax.” He undercuts the work of the government agency by injecting an unverifiable line from a contemporary stage play that asks: “Now do you think a responsible government agency would mislead the American public?” McMillan doesn’t include the words “nudge nudge wink wink,” but he ignores the strong possibility that he may be responsible for possibly causing a number of young and gullible readers to jump to the conclusion that the “hoax” explanation was itself the real hoax and thus subsequently lures them into a “don’t try this at home” bit of fact checking.

Chapter four, which details the rise of the Liberation News Service (LNS) indirectly focus on Berkeley because the organization, which came to sudden prominence in the journalism industry because of its coverage of both the “Battle of the Pentagon,” which started on October 21, 1967 and the week long student strike at Columbia which erupted spontaneously on April 23, 1968, had one of its first three teletype machines in Berkeley, when the organization started using them in February of 1968 (page 103).

Since the students didn’t permit reporters from Establishment media into the building, journalism student Steve Diamond was one of the LNS personnel who acted as a human news wire network between the various occupied buildings and got a unique perspective on the evolving events. Diamond is quoted (page 114) as saying in September of 1968: “We’ve educated a generation that no longer buys or needs daily newspapers.” Isn’t that sentiment being echoed these days on the Internets?

The lively and entertaining events that occurred when the staff of the Berkeley Barb revolted and formed the nucleus of a rival publication that came to be called The Berkeley Tribe were glossed over quickly on page 122 and again in Chapter 6’s footnote no. 84 on page 239.

[Personal note: This reviewer, while covering a 2010 story, in Berkeley CA, of the cripple peoples’ rights protest known as “Arnieville,” heard a recounting of that bit of underground newspaper history and is of the opinion that that facet of the topic at least deserved a longer and more conspicuous place in the book’s main body of text. We learned later in the book that the squabbling at a fictional underground newspaper, the Back Bay Mainline, was the basis for the 1977 film Between the Lines, which was set in the Boston area.]

McMillan quotes Bob Woodward’s 1974 assessment of the situation: “The underground press was largely right about government sabotage but the country didn’t get upset because it was the left that was sabotaged.”

The chapter about the power struggles in the editorial offices across the USA ends with the transcription of Thomas Forcade’s statement presented to a Congressional hearing on May 13, 1970. The words would be a hilarious blast from the past if the subtle implications of the move to impose “net neutrality” were only a figment of the imaginations of the conspiracy theory lunatics.

For the underground press, the question of “who decides” was a matter of basic philosophy. Their debate established once and for all that no topic was off limits in a free press. Internet sites would later make the one essential exception for conspiracy theories, but essentially continued the “no holds barred” philosophy established in the Sixties.

The Liberation News Service, as the summer of 1968 drew to a close, split into two rival factions. One wanted to move the headquarters to a farm in Vermont and the other thought that staying in the country’s media hub in New York City made sense. The events that followed sound like the scenario for a Three Stooges episode. The press was hijacked and a late night confrontation at the farm had ominous potential endings.

It was the high water mark for the underground press phase of American Journalism. The Seventies saw the emergence of the “alt” era of the newspaper business.

In the book’s Afterword, McMillan points out the similarities and parallels between the Sixties underground newspaper fad and the new trend of writers expressing themselves via blogging, which raises the question: Will future media scholars write books about the early days of the Internets? McMillan’s book will leave hippies asking this question: “Other than new labels and slogans for old issues, does anything really change from one generation to the next?”

For someone who can remember getting details of the shooting of James Rector from copies of the Berkeley Barb that were “hot off the press,” and who remembers the opportunity for catching a free Stones concert at Altamont as being an invitation to participate in a traffic jam of historic proportions, reading McMillan’s book was an enjoyable preliminary means for gathering material for a new column, but as to the readability appeal of this book for someone who hadn’t yet been born when Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey for the right to a free squat in the White House, we’ll let you know if a friend in Concordia thinks about it if they send us a review after we send them our personal copy of this new book from Oxford University Press.

It is apparent that the lessons learned in America during the Sixties about gaining control of unruly mobs are well known in Cairo today.

(We are relatively certain that any Berkeley citizen who still has copies of the Berkeley Barb among the material in their personal archives will like this book.)

On page 76 McMillan quotes the editor of the Barb, Max Sherr, as saying: “We’d plant small articles in the paper saying ‘There’s a rumor that something is going to happen on Telegraph Avenue Friday at two o’clock.’ So people would show up on Friday to see what would happen, someone would say, ‘Hey, let’s close off the street,’ and something would happen.”

Now the disk jockey will play Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” Harry Belefonte’s “Banana boat” song, and Country Joe McDonald’s “Fixin’ to Die Rag.” We have to go over to San Francisco to check out an event that is being called a Neal Cassidy birthday party. Have a “groovy” week.

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